The neuropragmatics of 'simple' utterance comprehension: An ERP review

Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2009). The neuropragmatics of 'simple' utterance comprehension: An ERP review. In U. Sauerland, & K. Yatsushiro (Eds.), Semantics and pragmatics: From experiment to theory (pp. 276-316). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
In this chapter, I review my EEG research on comprehending sentences in context from a pragmatics-oriented perspective. The review is organized around four questions: (1) When and how do extra-sentential factors such as the prior text, identity of the speaker, or value system of the comprehender affect the incremental sentence interpretation processes indexed by the so-called N400 component of the ERP? (2) When and how do people identify the referents for expressions such as “he” or “the review”, and how do referential processes interact with sense and syntax? (3) How directly pragmatic are the interpretation-relevant ERP effects reported here? (4) Do readers and listeners anticipate upcoming information? One important claim developed in the chapter is that the well-known N400 component, although often associated with ‘semantic integration’, only indirectly reflects the sense-making involved in structure-sensitive dynamic composition of the type studied in semantics and pragmatics. According to the multiple-cause intensified retrieval (MIR) account -- essentially an extension of the memory retrieval account proposed by Kutas and colleagues -- the amplitude of the word-elicited N400 reflects the computational resources used in retrieving the relatively invariant coded meaning stored in semantic long-term memory for, and made available by, the word at hand. Such retrieval becomes more resource-intensive when the coded meanings cued by this word do not match with expectations raised by the relevant interpretive context, but also when certain other relevance signals, such as strong affective connotation or a marked delivery, indicate the need for deeper processing. The most important consequence of this account is that pragmatic modulations of the N400 come about not because the N400 at hand directly reflects a rich compositional-semantic and/or Gricean analysis to make sense of the word’s coded meaning in this particular context, but simply because the semantic and pragmatic implications of the preceding words have already been computed, and now define a less or more helpful interpretive background within which to retrieve coded meaning for the critical word.
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